Durban - The planned illegal diversion of up to 15 million litres of raw sewage into the uMhlatuzana River, and ending up in Durban Harbour, has got affected communities up in arms.
Apart from the disgust factor, they fear the spread of harmful bacteria and disease, and possibly even fish die-offs.
The raw sewage - the equivalent of six Olympic size swimming pools - will be released into the water system on November 26 when work begins on an inlet pump station at the eThekwini Municipality’s uMhlatuzana Waste Waterworks Treatment Centre near Queensburgh.
The sewage will wind its way more than 20km, passing through nearly a dozen Durban communities before ending up in the harbour – a natural nursery for fish and also a water sport playground.
While the municipality said it was trying to “minimise the amount which will overflow”, communities bordering the river are outraged that no alternatives, such as using “honeysuckers” (sewage trucks) were to be used to remove the waste.
The raw sewage will make its way from the treatment centre past the homes of some Chatsworth residents as it flows through Kharwastan, Queensburgh, Queensmead industrial centre, Hillary, along the Stainbank Nature Reserve, Yellowwood Park, Montclair, Umbilo, Clairwood and Bayhead before entering the sea at Durban Harbour.
Bobby Peek, director of environmental watch group, GroundWork, said it was illegal for the city to allow effluent into the river system:
“They need to find ways of trucking that effluent so that they treat that system without decanting the effluent into the river.”
Peek said the city should have explored rerouting the sewage to the southern sewage works.
“They cannot just dump it. They are doing this without going through a full process that is open and legitimate.”
Desmond D’Sa, of the South Durban Environmental Alliance, said despite the concerns they had raised with the city and offering solutions such as honeysuckers, the city has ignored them.
“They are just going ahead with releasing the sewage. What makes this even worse is that they are doing this without any consultations,” he said.
Chris Fennemore, manager for pollution and environment at the eThekwini Municipality’s Water Department, said the city had consulted residents of an informal settlement who live on the riverbank and had alerted the health department.
Fennemore agreed that it was illegal to allow raw sewage into the river system but said the unavoidable repairs to the inlet pump were to ensure that no sewage spilled into the river.
He said if they had to use First World technology to remove the sewage, the city rates bill would “go through the roof”.
He said the maintenance on the pump was part of the city’s programme of upgrading ailing infrastructure and if not done, the pump would permanently pollute the river.
“The pump has given us numerous problems in the past and is in fact polluting the water.
“It has in the past passed effluent in the river for over six hours,” he said. “What we are trying to do is put in a more permanent solution so that it does not release sewage.”
Fennemore said they hoped to fix the pump within six hours, by which time five million litres of sewage would be released downstream. If it took 24 hours to repair, 15 million litres would be released.
“Every effort is being made to reduce the wastewater flow,” he said, adding that using honeysuckers was not viable as it would entail having 500 road tankers a day on the roads.
He assured the public that there would be minimal smell and that the sewage would dilute quickly.
“Fortunately this time of the year there is plenty of flow in the river meaning there will be plenty dilution,” he said.
“What people need to understand is that this (sewage leak) has been happening from time to time in this river and there was a lot worse going on before. What we are attempting to do now is improve it.”
Santosh Bachoo, a senior marine ecologist at KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife, said the communities’ concerns were legitimate.
He said in 2008, 17 tons of fish were killed in the Durban Harbour after oxygen was sucked out of the water by a build-up of bacteria - similar to the faecal bacteria that will be released into the river.
“Even with the higher flow in summertime the high temperatures mean the bacterium grows at a faster rate and the ecological impacts are much greater,” Bachoo said. “It is not a very clear-cut thing. I am worried about fish kill happening again at Durban Harbour because that is where the river ends.”
He said Durban Harbour was a very important nursery area for juvenile fish.
“We know what happened before when a pipe burst. It was one of the biggest fish kills on record.”
Graham Coleman, Commodore of the Bluff Yacht Club, said he was not surprised that the city would allow the raw sewage to flow downstream.
“It (raw sewage) is just one of the things we have to contend with every day. We have an ongoing problem with every bit of paper and plastic that washes up on our doorstep from the whole catchment area.
“The municipality takes it away by the truckload. There is no plan to collect the rubbish upstream and every time we have heavy rains it is just a cesspool of plastic packets, condoms and the odd foetus. The raw sewage is probably less visible.
“We already know not to go into our water because if you have any open cut, you can rest assured that you will get blood poisoning and end up in hospital,” he said.
Richard Crockett, an avid yachtsman and publisher of Sailing magazine, said the raw sewage would most affect the clubs nearest the river.
“This is going to be bad for everyone. It is not healthy. It goes against the grain in keeping the waters of Durban Harbour clean. It is fundamentally wrong to be pumping raw sewage into the river. The city needs to be proactive and inform people to stay out of the area that day. We have so much pollution at the harbour as it is.”